Posted: 1/2/2007 7:41:09 PM EDT
Chasing gangs out of town
Multifaceted plan praised in Fontana
Leonor Vivanco, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 01/02/2007 12:00:00 AM PST
FONTANA - They've deployed various weapons in their arsenal to combat homegrown terrorists.
They've lost some battles, but Fontana police seem to be winning the war against gangs.
In the early 1990s, the city suffered its worst gang hit.
"In the '80s, when we started to see the problem as a community," said Police Chief Larry Clark, "we put our heads in the sand and said, `Oh, we don't have a gang problem.'
"What happened by doing that, rather than dealing with it ... all of the sudden it became a major laceration... Now we were doing trauma control to try to get out in front of it."
Fontana police now have had a multifaceted plan of attack.
In addition to participating in the countywide task force San Bernardino Movement Against Street Hoodlums, or SMASH, Fontana police moved away from the DARE program and started a program to have school resource officers at every middle school attended by Fontana residents.
"Hopefully we'll impact those young people so we can make a difference," Clark said.
"Once they get to high school, they've already made a decision, and we're not going to have as much an impact on changing their attitude not only towards the police, but
toward gang involvement," he said.
The city has maintained its 8-person gang unit that spends much of its time gathering intelligence on the eight gangs native to the city.
The unit will get more bodies added to it in the next few months, Clark said.
The city has added several new police positions in the past couple of years to accommodate the city's explosive growth and to gear up for the annexation of several unincorporated areas.
In its current budget, Fontana beefed up its Police Department with more sworn positions - to 194. The city also added recreation and cultural programs for youth and adults.
Also, more graffiti abatement crews have been hired to erase the markings by gangs.
"If you look at our graffiti, I'm not going to say we're completely white-walled, because that's not the case," said the police chief. "Then (in the 1990s) it was pretty much hard to find areas where there was no graffiti at all. Now, you really have to go looking (for graffiti)."
Graffiti can invoke fear into residents, he said.
Longtime resident Joan Geist has tried to get her neighbors and other residents involved in the Neighborhood Watch program so they can report crimes and graffiti when it first appears.
"Any time I see that kind of indication they're marking the territories, I report it immediately," she said. "When people start seeing gang activity, they have to stop being afraid."
But fear of gangs can be hard to overcome.
"The effect (of gangs) on the community, and having spoken with literally hundreds of victims and witnesses of gang crimes, is that it promotes fear and intimidation in the community," said Fontana police Sgt. Billy Green.
Residents and police officers have seen gangs become more violent over the years, even with innocent people not in gangs.
"Everybody even back then had their head in the ground, and our parents would just say `don't hang around those guys,' and we didn't," said Geist, who has lived in Fontana since 1947.
"Now, you don't have to go out looking for trouble."
Another weapon the police and prosecutors wield is stiffer penalties for gang-related crimes.
"It's becoming a challenge for us investigating gang crimes because gang members are aware of this," Green said.
Some gang members are walking poster boards for their gangs with tattoos of the gang's name scrawled all over their bodies. But that's changing.
"We're seeing a new generation of gang members that aren't getting their gang's name tattooed on them," Green said.
They are even denying gang membership when questioned, Clark said.
"It's hard to deny gang association when you have gang tattoos on your neck. It's easier to deny it if you are clean-cut," he said.
Green touts the Police Department's partnerships with the district attorney and Sheriff's Department and other agencies as one of the reasons Fontana is successful in its fight with gangs.
Longtime resident Emory James said the city has had its share of gang involvement in the 28 years he lived in Fontana.
"We don't hear as much about gang involvement as we did in the past," he said.
He credits the Police Department for working diligently to address the problem.
"We've been able to contain it to some level so it doesn't affect our quality of life," James said.